The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish by Mike Kleine

pilotBased on the two books I’ve read out of the three he’s published so far, I have the feeling that Mike Kleine is an extremely contemporary writer. By this I mean that his work seems to be anchored very firmly to the present moment and the present atmosphere, so reading his books gives me a sense of inclusion and insider knowledge because I also live in the present moment and I know something of its atmosphere, too. But I can’t be sure how his works will come across 20 years from now – I have no way of knowing whether they will persist or expire.

Comparing this play to Mastodon Farm, Kleine’s first book, I think this has a higher chance to survive and avoid expiration because it’s not anchored as deeply to the present reality and to the pop-cultural products and the entertainment industry of the present as Mastodon Farm is. Instead, The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish is set in an undefinable place and time, somewhere around the (both temporal and spacial) end of the world. (So after all – it could just as easily be set here and now.)

There’s no point going into the details about the plot because the play doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have characters, either – at least not the kind of characters whose physique and identity remains roughly the same. It’s certainly no accident that the cast overview is missing from the beginning – here neither the appearance, nor the personality of the characters is stable. (Clearly, appearance and personality are never stable – but Kleine takes this changeability to whole new levels.)

What’s here instead of plot and constant characters is three persons switching their form, gender, name, occupation and personality throughout the play while sitting in a house where the floor is painted a deep ocean blue, and where hundreds of painted fish (including the titular seventeen pilot fish) swim without movement through the big big blue. The three characters spend most of their time discussing whether one of the male characters is the husband of the one female character or not, and they also try to find out the source of the noises that come from the wall. Meanwhile, the world outside is collapsing. In a very matter of course fashion.

So yes, this play is rather absurd. And it resists easy interpretation. During the last couple of weeks I read it three times, and it was only after the third time (which was incidentally the first time I read it with sufficiently fresh brain) that I realized that Kleine’s words are where they are because they need to be there. It was only after the third time I realized that Kleine is not just being absurd for absurdity’s sake (which would also be fine with me) but he has a point (several points) to make (and having a point in absurdity is even more to my taste than being absurd just for the fun of it).

A couple of themes this play examines: how hard it is to find meaning – in things, the world, and other humans; how everything is ever-changing and open to thousands of different interpretations; and most prominently: how weird, magical, reality-creating and reality-changing things words are – and how all the meaning we convey with them is based on strange, silent agreements, agreements that can be broken anytime – easily, unilaterally. And how all this – all this is scary and intimidating.

Just one example. The female character of the play once tells one of the male characters: „You can call me Heather.” A little later the man calls her Heather, to which she replies: „My name’s not Heather.” Sure, it’s absurd, but if we stop for a moment and take the meaning of words seriously, and not just interpret them on autopilot mode as we usually do, then it makes perfect sense. Offering someone to call you something doesn’t at all mean that that’s your real name. And anyway – does it even matter what’s someone’s real name? And what makes real real?

The themes are definitely interesting here, but I can’t avoid the question: why is this a play, and not a novella, or something else? I have a strong suspicion that it would be virtually impossible to stage this play. Granted, I can imagine a sort of divided stage, where one part is the house, and the other part is everything else out there (but both must be visible at the same time, as the events often happen simultaneously inside the house and outside in the world), and I can also imagine projecting photos and videos to show what’s going on outside – but none of these would be precise. I often feel that the words here are not translatable to another medium, they couldn’t be shown or acted out because their effect lies in the fact that I consume them as written words.

Seeing onstage that the ocean blue floor of the room is teeming with painted fish wouldn’t have the same effect as reading about the ocean blue floor of the room, and then reading a list running several pages about the exact types and number of fish covering the floor. Reading the list of dozens of fish species (while I secretly wonder: do all these really exist, or are some of them just fictitious fish?) on the one hand gives the play lots of verisimilitude (because only reality can be so messy, so random, so disorderly as Mike Kleine’s fish), on the other hand it creates a distance between me and reality – because reading lists of several dozens of items makes my brain switch off after a while, and I just keep reading hypnotized, and no – I’m not going online to check whether each and every type of fish here is real or not.

So why is this a play then? I presume it’s because it’s a good genre for Kleine to play with the things he likes to play with, to use lots of music and visual elements in his work, and to be as minimalistic as possible. After all, in a play there’s no pressing need to provide detailed, explanatory descriptions of events and characters (not that there’s too much of those in Mastodon Farm, either). Here it’s only language, only random and pointless and contradictory and all-too-real utterances – with no background, no explanation. Yes, it feels real. Often frightfully so.

The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

the_caretakerAs far as I know Harold Pinter, plot and story are usually non-existent in his works, but I write a few lines about what goes on in this play. (I don’t think it really matters here, but I must add that my post contains spoilers.)

So, the play is about two brothers, Mick and Aston. Mick works in the construction industry, and leads an average, moderately pointless life; Aston – through no fault of his own – doesn’t work anywhere, and leads an absolutely pointless life. Mick is the owner of a run-down building, and his idea is that he lets Aston live there, and Aston, in return, renovates the house. At the beginning of the play Aston brings home an old never-do-well, Davies (or perhaps his name is Jenkins), and he offers him a bed to sleep in. Aston wants to help Davies – who is even more screwed-up than him – and he comes up with the idea that perhaps Davies might become the caretaker of the building. Some time later – independently of Aston – Mick also comes to the conclusion that it would be nice if Davies became the caretaker. But finally Davies doesn’t become the caretaker.

Basically, this is it, but of course the story isn’t too important here. What’s important, and what the play is about is the characters’ inability to communicate, their impotence, helplessness, and their all-permeating, almost tragic cluelessness. Each of the three characters is impotent, helpless (etc.) to some extent, but the level of their defencelessness varies greatly.

To understand the level of the characters’ emotional and mental nakedness, it’s worth considering their typical, trademark sentences one by one because these sum up their philosophy in life very succinctly. For instance, Davies, the old idler (who says that he’s a jack of all trades but I’ve got the hunch that in fact he’s a jack of no trades) keeps repeating that as soon as the weather clears he’s going down to a distant London neighborhood to get his identity documents which he had left in the care of an acquaintance ten-odd years ago. Davies argues that all his problems will be miraculously solved once he gets his documents back – for example, he will be able to prove his real name, and he will also be able to prove that he’s the perfect candidate for the caretaker position. Of course, Davies never goes down to Sidcup for his papers, but there’s always a good reason for his inertia – it’s either raining; or it looks as if it’s going to rain; or his shoes are so worn that it’s impossible to take a long walk in them. (But then again – Davies’s constant search for excuses is understandable, given the fact that he probably knows well enough that having his documents on him wouldn’t really change a thing, but as long as he doesn’t have them, he can pretend that his failure in life is due to the missing papers.)

Aston’s philosophy greatly resembles that of the old would-be caretaker: he keeps saying that he will start the renovation of the house by first building a shed in the backyard, and when it’s built, he will be able to get down to the more important tasks. The shed, however, never gets built – Aston’s only noteworthy activity around the house is that he collects junk, and he tries to repair a broken toaster. Aston’s impotence and his constant procrastination arise from the events in his past: as it turns out, he suffers from some mental illness and he was treated with electric shock therapy when he was younger. The treatment left him even worse off, and since then, Aston keeps wandering around in reality and he’s virtually unable to act and think „normally”.

And Mick – even though he lives a more or less „normal” life – is also constantly waiting for the ideal circumstances, and he does virtually nothing to advance his plans. His dream is that one day he will live with his brother in the beautifully redecorated house, and everything will be just fine and idyllic – but presumably he knows that if it’s up to Aston, the house will never be renovated. So the suspicion might arise that perhaps Mick doesn’t really want to live together with his mentally deranged brother.

These underlying thoughts and motivations, naturally, never come to the surface. And even the thoughts that are given voice to are such that the others never understand (or completely misunderstand) them. We might say that The Caretaker is a „typical”, depressing, sickly-funny absurdist play. But the reason why I find it almost unbearably sad and depressing is that The Caretaker – contrary to some really absurd/abstract absurdist plays – is too much like the reality I know. Reading this play broke my heart now – partly because it’s very real, and partly because it’s clear from all the fragmentary, meaningless conversation attempts of the characters that these people basically mean well, and if the need arises they protect and stand up for each other (e.g. Mick doesn’t let Davies dismiss Aston disparagingly) – but in the end, all this good-will, all these plans are for nothing.